It’s a pity that Christmas is over so quickly. Come Epiphany, the feast of the Wise men, and down come the Christmas lights, the tree decorations are packed away until Advent comes round again and Joseph and Mary, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, three Kings and an angel or two are bubble wrapped for safety- and that’s Christmas done.
Like me, you may have noticed that as the Christmas story unwinds, Mary is surrounded by men. Luke gives no mention of sisters or cousins, no midwife or female helper for a young woman as she gives birth for the first time. Elizabeth and Anna, two women who were an integral part of Jesus’ infancy story, don’t appear in the Church’s Christmas readings. Anna is bundled into a February feast known as Candlemas while Elizabeth doesn’t get a mention until March 25th.
Three women, three wise women. Long before John the Baptizer pointed out Jesus as ‘the one who is to come’, Mary, Elizabeth and Anna recognised that in the new-born Jesus the old covenant was giving way to the new.
Luke presents Mary as a village woman, young, betrothed, pregnant, married, widowed, courageous, an empty-nester, prayerful and ministering, with a circle of women friends. Her initial response to God’s invitation came in the words of a gritty young woman, not afraid to ask a very pointed question, angel or no angel. Her unwavering Yes to God was lived out under the military rule of a foreign occupying power, underpinned by Jewish male religious domination and, not to be underestimated, a son who she sometimes struggled to understand.
Cousin Elizabeth, no longer a young woman when we meet her in Luke’s Gospel, had suffered the stigma of childlessness, putting up with whispered comments and snide judgments from family and friends who inferred that infertility was a punishment from God for sin – hers, not that of husband Zachariah! He was learned in the Law, able to solve knotty religious problems and faithful to the requirements of his priestly state. Elizabeth was quietly and joyfully attuned to the God within her.
In these days when the place of women in the Church is such a source of pain and conflict we can look to Elizabeth – an older woman, faithful when it seemed hopeless, standing firm as she challenged custom and tradition. It was she who recognised the wonder and mystery of God at work, both in herself and in Mary, her young pregnant cousin.
Women’s spirituality is often wrapped up in the minutiae of family and relationships, pregnancy and husbands. In reflective moments they are able to acknowledge that the gifts and skills that they bring to daily life bring them closer to God. Maybe this is because they are life-bearers and all new life, physical or spiritual, is carried close to the heart.
Anna was an old lady, a wise woman, tuned into God. To some she was seen as a religious crank, someone who doesn’t seem to have a life outside of religious practices. Over the years she had become a fixture in the Jerusalem Temple, watching families grow, blessing the babies of former babies, a model of prayer -to be wondered at but not copied.
She might have been old but she was fit; scooting around the temple precincts 24/7, greeting people, encouraging them, praying for them. There was nothing much wrong with her eyesight and hearing either, because she not only saw from a distance her friend Simeon’s interest in one particular new baby, but she heard his words about a sword piercing the heart of the young mother.
As a woman of God she knew that bringing up children could be heartbreaking, and as a woman with a compassionate heart she knew that it wasn’t something any young mum particularly wanted, or even needed, to hear. She felt, rather than saw, that this baby would be the light that would flood the darkness of a world groping towards God. Anna told everyone she met about the child. Knowing that she had lived to see that day filled her with hope and spilled over into joy.
Still today God’s human touch is woven through the young, as they move into the future with an enviable energy, the middle aged, like Elizabeth, taking hold of their hard won wisdom and the Annas, longing to lift the darkness that hides hope and let in God’s clear, clean light.